The politically divisive nature of diversity
17 April 2009
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That old standby of the Labour years, the anti-racism festival, is under threat. The Rise Festival, which is normally held in Finsbury Park, north London, in September, will not take place this year now that the Mayor of London Boris Johnson has decided that local taxpayers’ money would be better spent on a variety of smaller musical events. There has been something of a row, with the local MP Lynne Featherstone expressing her disappointment that “celebrating diversity is such a low priority for the new Mayor”.
Celebrating diversity, anti-racism, anti-hate: the phrases bring back memories of old Mayor Ken. Johnson’s agenda, one suspects, is more political than economic.
Perhaps he is right. Anti-racism festivals, concerts and rallies are not the gentle peace-and-love events one might suppose. They have a hard political edge, having emerged in response to the rise of the British National Party. They tend to point up division rather than unity. There is a surprising amount of hate at anti-hate rallies.
In fact, as soon as any cultural event claims to be a celebration of diversity, a degree of scepticism is to be advised. On the National Theatre’s website, Richard Bean’s rather unpleasant new play about immigration England People Very Nice, is described as “a celebration of the diversity experienced in London despite the stereotypic divides between communities” when, in truth, it celebrates nothing more than stupidity and prejudice.
For all its jokes, musical parodies and theatrical business, Bean’s play is an irony-free reflection of ugly racial clichés. The Irish sleep with their sisters and keep pigs in the bedroom; the Jews are wily and unreliable; the Indians are ingratiating; the Muslims fanatical and threatening.
Yet, like the Rise Festival, England People Very Nice would seem to have its heart in the right place. It embodies traditional views of Englishness, thereby refuting accusations that the National Theatre only puts on left-wing plays. It has an admirably multi-racial cast. The only white liberals who appear in it are figures of comic mockery.
Its director, Nicholas Hytner, has claimed that the play “lampoons all forms of stereotyping” but this is desperate poppycock. Attitudes, stories and gags which, had they appeared in the pages of the Sun would cause decent middle-audience to recoil in horror, are here applauded to the echo.
Richard Bean’s position is the opposite of those attending an anti-racism festival, and is undeniably brave. “For 15 years we’ve had balance and sensitivity training,” he has said in an interview. “What this country needs now is de-sensitivity training.” No one could say that he has not played his part in the process.
The Rise Festival and England People Very Nice approach the question of our increasingly mixed – and mixed-up – culture from different directions, but neither contributes much to the business of our all getting on together.
Racial and national diversity are celebrated best when they do not draw attention to themselves but are simply part of our everyday existence: at a football match where fans are chanting the name of a striker from the Ivory Coast; at a concert where musicians from different cultures and traditions play together; in a novel where a new and unfamiliar view of English society is presented.
At these events, there is no self-conscious emphasis on how wonderfully varied and multi-coloured our national culture has become. It is just part of life, and all the better for it.
Carry Ons gave us innocent pleasure
It could be argued that the man behind the Carry On films, Peter Rogers, who has just died, had a greater influence on Britain’s national image in the late-20th century and beyond than the Beatles or even Ian Fleming. English comedy would always have had busty women, hen-pecked husbands, randy bachelors and joke homosexuals, but it was Rogers’s films – even the bad ones – which brought the clichés to life and gave them a human face.
The character which has emerged from the obituaries for Peter Rogers – slightly dull, organised, stingy and an animal-lover – turns out to be as much an English type as anyone played on-screen by Charles Hawtrey or Joan Sims. He may not have been the most generous or creative producer, but Rogers gave a lot of mostly innocent pleasure to the world.
Literary world’s storm in a tea set
The world of books is a small and usually rather cosy place. Events which take place there – an author having an affair with her agent, a row between poets, an unusually abusive review – can resonate excitingly through arts diaries, sometimes for weeks.
All the same, as a hold-the-front-page item, this week’s literary news leaves something to be desired. Dame Margaret Drabble has decided, at the age of 69, that she will almost certainly not write any more novels. She is worried that she may repeat herself. “The number of times I’ve told the same stories – you really don’t want to start doing that in novels,” she has said.
Something else writers should avoid is making bold declarations about what they will or will not be doing in the future. AN Wilson once renounced column-writing, but was soon back at the coal-face. Alain de Botton has made a similar pronouncement.
There was more gold in the interview with Drabble, broadcast on Radio 4’s Front Row and then reported in the press. Dame Margaret revealed that she once annoyed her sister, AS Byatt, by writing about a particular tea set which belonged to the family.
And they say the literary world lacks excitement.